|why god may be a gooner - safety
For thousands of years the remote uplands of this island have been associated with the supernatural. The high places, that are that much closer to the gods and the stars, were where temples were built and rituals carried out. Many people believe ancient sites retain some vestige of their supernatural power, just a latent whiff of their original spirit, even in the present materialist age. The spookiness of a place is usually a combination of a compelling narrative and some unexplained phenomena; a very great wrong in the past that has been left unrighted is combined with a few strange lights, a spectral figure, an unearthly sound, wierd weather, stuff rolling up hill, compasses going wacko and an intense feeling of forboding amongst witnesses.
The Peak District, east of Manchester, is renowned as having many such eerie sites. One story in particular is of a man who would rather his daugther went to the devil than to the man she wanted to marry. Sure enough, when the couple were frolicking up on the moors, Auld Nick himself showed up to claim his prize. Apparently, in grabbing the wench, his arm fell off (not really all that scary is it, the spindly armed dark lord, brittle Beelzebub - I am Satan, but my friends call me twiggy). Anyway, the hill above the A628 subsequently became known as "The Devils Elbow". A malign figure is said to have been sighted from time to time haunting the place - presumably searching for his missing arm, or more likely waiting for his bird to show up.
It was the A628 we took on Sunday to get to Old Trafford. At this time of year, when the leaves surrender to the oncoming winter and take on rich auburn and burnt gold hues, picked out by a clean bright autumn sun, Derbyshire is most resplendent and gorgeous vista in Britain. Alongside the road lies a series of man-made reservoirs, reflecting ever more of that pale sunlight onto the heathered hills. The road winds itself around those hills and houses nestle in the bosom of them. It really is glorious.
But these high roads are also treacherous, as we found out on the way home. Coil some pagan black tarmac around a few steep hills and add some snow, ice and torrential rain and you have a recipe for tragedy; something the local council remind you about every half a mile is to watch your speed. The nearby A57 "Snake Pass" is usually the first place in England to get a snowfall and is amongst the rainiest places in Britain. And not just a few millimetres either. Woodhead, on the A57 near Glossop, has 52 inches of rain a year. Most of it fell on Sunday night. A three-quarter moon failed to make much of an impression on a pregnant and ominous black sky. Thunder and lightning hammered down all around us, accompanied by rain so biblical that if it had had frogs in it I wouldn't have been that surprised. In the brief illumination of a flash of lightning, those same trees that quilted the hills were transformed into angry twisted silhouettes - like flashing a torch briefly into a cave at Pompeii and glimpsing the agonised statues within mid-writhe. The rain fell vertically and en masse as if one of the reservoirs had been picked up in its entirety and dumped directly over the car in a great 10-minute cascade. It was like parking under Niagara. You couldn't help feeling that the stench of deceit had reached the very nostrils of the gods, that they ahd drawn their bows and test-swung their hammers, and that a generous helping of wrath was about to be dished out to some poor bugger pretty sharpish? I like to think their ire, if it was indeed they who were making all that noise, was directed at an injustice.
Manchester United are known as the Red Devils. Mischief and cunning are not only implied in the name, but actively encouraged in the play. They should be a South American team, such is their reverence for cleverness that someone else might call unsporting. Maradona would have been most at home in Old Trafford - he would have been the darling of the Stretford End. The club has a chaplain, I'm told. The bloke must be so rushed off his feet with exorcism, he doesn't have time to minister to suspect bedwetter Ronaldo's home-sickness. Manchester United, loved and revered by some as the greatest football club on earth, is felt by just as many others to be the very nexus of evil.
On the day Reyes was tormented by two Neville imps pricking his ankles with red hot poker tackles. Rooney gut-barged into anyone with the ball without sanction. And the greasy horse of the apocalypse whinnied before stamping gracelessly on Ashley Cole. Mike Riley, supposedly the arbitrator in this mythic battle, showed the favouritism of Zeus and gave his imprimatur to all these antics. His first actual booking was for Cole's repeated, but really quite unfocussed, attempts at agression. Finally, Gary Neville got a booking when Reyes nutmegged him and he felled the Spaniard murderously from the back for taking the mickey. He and his brother then sandwiched Reyes and the latter also got a card ("he's got one, so I want one"). Even so, Arsenal came out with more punishments, not just in cards, but penalisations far more severe besides. The scouse oaf Rooney later admitted to never having been touched by Sol Campbell. Nevertheless Riley knows just where to point when "60,000 Muppets" squawk like the Swedish Chefs chicken. Rooney's lack of respect for older players whom others revere (Zidane, for instance) serves to illustrate that he is a chav at heart, despite his new found fame. Were it not for football, you might find him clad in Burberry and Henri Lloyd outside a corner shop, spitting and trying to sound like a Jamaican yardie; scrapeback-haired girls in tracksuits adoring him for it. My own personal anger was directed towards Rio Ferdinand though. Not only did he prevent a clear goal scoring opportunity for Fred. He also seemed to feel he had to make up for his absence from the game in recent months by running 40-plus yards to berate the opposition whenever the play stopped for yet another foul. In every respect United were cynical and clinical. Arsenal can match them or beat them in every department, but you never feel that they would do whatever it takes to win a game. There'd always be a line they wouldn't cross. The very ethos of the club demands it. The moral high ground was clearly theirs.
Of course every empire claims God is on its side. There hasn't been a single US president that hasn't felt the need, come election time, to get his carcass in through the narthex of the nearest episcopalian and start looking holy. The latest one quite openly professes his faith (a reformed character after a misspent youth is actually even more appealing in his respect than a Holy Joe). His dad before him certainly tried to put a bit of christian spin on his electioneering (mind you, being ex-head of the CIA, he assiduously did not make any of his professions of holy dedication anywhere not covered by a stout lightning rod). Bush's rival for the White House, John Kerry has come out as a Catholic. No doubt he's sincere, but he also knows that such a profession of faith will at least make the bible belt think a little before hanging a chad next to elephant.
So does God favour Arsenal? Was Sunday's slip-up the malevolent manouvureings of the evil one, whilst the big Man was watching Song of Praise? In fact one could suggest that Arsenals failure on Sunday may have been divine retribution, and a lesson in knowing your place.
Arsenal have recently been described in terms that, by rights, should be reserved only for the most holy: immortal, invincible, unbeatable. Henry has been described by fans as a "diva"; criticised by Delia Smith, the domestic goddess herself, for his failure to give autographs to miniature hoards of adoring Canaries waiting by the Arsenal coach outside Carrow Road. Some people think he's a bit too big for those red boots. He isn't the only one either. The most common adjective you'll hear these days to criticise the team is "arrogant". A Man U supporting colleague preferred the word "schadenfreude". It could be just their Frenchness, of course. But they do reckon themselves pretty great.
They say pride comes before a fall, and a haughty laugh before destruction. They say the devil is merely the instrument of Gods' will, though he believes himself the agent of his own. They say Pride is the sin that God hates most, for it allows man to think himself God's equal. Can I really believe that He would not look kindly on the scintillating play and the sheer joyous bounty they have brought to the worlds favourite pastime? Frankly, no. I prefer to believe that He wills it that Arsenal should take a lesson in their own mortality. He wants that they should be gracious once in a while. He desires that they should temper their talent with humility and should thank Him that they were born with it at all, and that they daily enjoy the fellowship of others equally blessed.
And I believe that, like most of the rest of us, God really can't flipping stand Manchester United.